The gateway where hope and history rhyme

Migrant Mother - Dorothea Lange 1936
Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange 1936

In her beautiful blog, Maria Popova describes Reverend Victoria Stafford’s meditation in The Small Work in the Great Work (in the collection The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times) as “gorgeous”. Stafford is “interested in what Seamus Heaney calls the meeting point of hope and history, where what has happened is met by what we make of it. What has happened is met midstream by people who are … spiritual beings and all that implies from creativity, imagination, crazy wisdom, passionate compassion, selfless courage, and radical reverence for life.” Here is how Heaney puts it in The Cure at Troy where hope and history rhyme:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Popova frames her post with Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of Migrant Mother. The woman moved by Lange is possibly a Californian pea picker in the Great Depression. Perhaps Popova has been prompted to turn to this photo by Stafford’s anecdote:

“I have a friend who traffics in words. She is not a minister, but a psychiatrist in the health clinic at a prestigious women’s college. We were sitting once not long after a student she had known and counselled,  had committed suicide… My friend, the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally, but deeply, fully – as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.

At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow or making a new covenant (and I think she was). She spoke explicitly of her vocation, and of yours and mine. She said, “You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do – what I am called to do – is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them toward beautiful life and love.”

Michael Sadgrove also claims the “gate” as the standpoint for Christian ministry. Considering Job in his book Wisdom and Ministry, Sadgrove asks about the piety required of those who are called to be friends and comforters to those who have to endure pain, and says that we don’t stand apart from suffering humanity, but face the world as it is. “We must often sit among the ahses where Job is, and must always go outside the gate to the place of the skull, where Jesus is.”

Opening the gate of Hope at the meeting point of  hope and history begins with holding a moment (as in Lange’s photo) closely and deeply, and meeting that with all that we are. For me, this is a passionate rendition of all the pastoral cycle seeks to do in theological reflection and pastoral practice. The final word goes to Victoria Stafford: “Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope.” There we see the world “as it is and as it could be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle” Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is in the public domain.

Listful parading – a sermon for Pentecost

Love the Olympic cauldron. Well done Danny Boyle, well done London. What an opening ceremony.
In our worship we are joined by Christians from around the globe: Nigerian, French, Swedish, Canadians, Chinese. Our Diocese has links with the Melanesian Church and the Congolese Church. Your parish may have other links with churches as well. Some of you may have personal links. The Anglican cycle of Prayer invites us to join other Anglicans around the world in praying for the Dioceses of North Dakota and South Dakota, and their Bishops Michael Smith and John Tarrant.

In worship of our God we are as one. We are brothers and sisters, children of our heavenly father. Thanks be to God, through his work as father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That is the thrust of our reading from Acts as its author Luke recalls the power of God poured out by Jesus from the right hand of God as Holy Spirit on that Harvest festival in Jerusalem.

It was a power so powerful that about 3000 people were added to the other 120 disciples.

It was a power so transformative that “all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions they gave to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all people.” (Acts 2)

The prophet Joel looked forward to the day when God would pour out his Spirit on all people, young and old, men and women. He knew then that the young would see visions and the old would dream dreams.

I wonder whether the disciples’ commune was one of those dreams, one of those visions.

I wonder if the spirit of Luke’s writing is not wanting us to read this passage as a one-off day in history – for us many centuries ago, but as “today, of all days”, and “today and everyday”.

God showers (that’s the meaning of the Greek word behind out word “baptism”) people with his love, today of all days, and today and everyday.

And then he wants to help us to dream dreams about what is possible, to envision the world in which God’s kingdom comes, on earth, as in heaven. It’s about the future, not the past.

Our news headlines are grim aren’t they? Particularly for the poor.

This week’s news featured a grandmother who committed suicide because of the new bedroom tax, and welfare workers have been trained to recognize suicide risk.

The plight of vulnerable children was highlighted by the Oxfordshire rape case. There was a body discovered buried in a garden in Ellesmere Port. Violence in Iraq has escalated with days of bombings between Sunni and Shia.

Luke’s world was no less divisive. We know there were divisions between oppressed and free, colonized and colonizer, rich and poor, Jew and Greek, men and women.

Luke parades the differences before our very eyes.

In the gospel, he parades the poor, the blind, the prisoners, the lame and the oppressed.

Here, in this reading from Acts, he parades the nations represented at the Pentecost festival.

I’ve heard readers get to that list of nationalities that Luke has measured out for us. Instead of reading the list, they said “Parthians, Medes and Elamites etc etc” which totally misses Luke’s point.

We enjoyed the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony of the Olympics – we discovered countries we never knew existed, like Micronesia. What would it have been like if we were just shown the first three – Team GB, USA and China – with the rest reduced to a blur, as etcetera, while we fast forwarded to something more interesting, like the Queen sky-diving?

No, the list of nations is meant to be long. That is the point. All those people gathered on one place, and in spite of their differences, and their border conflicts, they all heard in their own language what the disciples were saying as they spoke in tongues.

And 3000 of them came together, sold everything, shared everything, met everyday, and enjoyed the favour of all people.

Is it a tall story, a vision or a dream?
Heatherwick's Petals
You saw the Parade of Athletes at the Olympics last year. For a moment I want you to use your imagination. I want you to parade Luke’s people before your eyes, to see their flags, and to also notice the petal each group is carrying.

Here come the (fanfare, dancing, drums, cheering and applause)


The Medes

The Elamites

The residents of Mesopotamia

The Judeans

The Cappadocians

People from Pontus,



Egyptians (why do they walk like that?)

Libyans from the region of Cyrene




They parade around, stake their flag in front of our eyes and place their petal in a stand.

Then come seven young boys and girls. They represent the promise of the future. They go to the petals, and they breathe fire on to them. One by one the petals catch a light until they are all ablaze. The flames come together as one cauldron.

Wasn’t it an amazing sight that Danny Boyle offered us? Isn’t it an amazing sight that Luke shows us.

In spite of our differences, all of us understood in our own heart of hearts the Olympic dream.

For the Dean of Durham we saw what we can be.

He wrote: “We saw some important things that spoke about Britishness in the 21st century … like care and compassion, inclusivity and diversity, flair and creativity, modesty and understatement, the confidence to be at ease with ourselves, our ability to question ourselves, our enjoyment of life.”

Likewise, Luke’s parade needs no interpretation and no explanation. Each of them knew the meaning of what was being said in tongues from within the tongues of flame.

We hear of people speaking in tongues and wonder what all that’s about.

But the message of these 120 men and women speaking in tongues was immediately understandable.

Nothing was lost in translation, because although they were speaking in tongues, they were speaking the Mother Tongue, the tongue of the Holy Spirit.

The Mother Tongue is not a difficult language. In the Mother Tongue there is only one word, which was in the very beginning and which will be spoken for ever.

Some chose to think that the disciples were drunk.

But others, 3000 of them, chose to see the power that is God’s, that overcomes difference, that reconciles enemies, that made one community of many interests.

We call that community “the church”.

This is the community that believes in the power of God to turn the world upside down.

This is the community in which members see a chaotic world before their eyes, but they realise their own responsibility to revert to the Mother Tongue in all their interactions.

This is the community which prays for the ending of division and the repair of broken relationships, which prays for Sunni and Shia in Baghdad, slaves, the poor, the abused and their abusers because we know what is possible, today and all days.

This is the community of men and women who dare to dream dreams and who see visions of kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is the community that is being constantly licked into shape by the Mother Tongue. Today of all days, and today and every day.

This sermon was preached at Christ Church, Higher Bebington on May 19th 2013.

The photo of the Olympic Cauldreon is by Paul Watson. The Cauldron was designed by Heatherwick.

Ringing true

20120725 Olympic opening ceremony rehearsal DSC_3479.jpg

Marcus Brigstocke couldn’t quite understand why there are so many countries represented in the Olympics. He assumes that some of the countries are made up. I too kept saying “where’s that?” as the athletes paraded. My favourite was Micronesia, which, if I remember correctly, is next to Amnesia, and next to its far larger neighbour Magnesia (famed for its milk and antacid industry). @marcusbrig has suggested other countries that could have been taking part, including Neverland, Narnia and the Land of Nod. Personally I don’t ever see Legoland being able to put together an opening ceremony like the one we saw on Friday, but I do look forward to the opening ceremony in Oz.

Ai Weiwei’s contrast in the Guardian between the Beijing and London Olympic ceremonies is telling. For me, the Opening Ceremony rang true. Aidan Burley MP’s tweet apart (he wrote: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”)  the Opening Ceremony has been praised from all quarters. Danny Boyle held up a mirror to the world representing his reading of this “green and pleasant (ironic) land”. People liked what they saw in the mirror, and us Brits said “yes, this is us”. We recognise how the industrial revolution ripped our landscape and communities apart, and we recognised the values which have made for modern Britain. These values of care, generosity and hospitality are not exclusively British, and they are contested values in Britain, but care, generosity and hospitality were celebrated as the building blocks of community. It was good to see the parade of achievements (music, film, comedy) alongside the parade of sporting talent, and to see the national treasure of the NHS polished to the wonderful accompaniment of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and In Dulce Jubilo.

So many highlights rang my bells. Besides the NHS scenes there was the ringing of the bell, the music, Rowan Atkinson, the drumming (particularly Evelyn Glennie), the Industrial Revolution, the silence, Abide with me, the cast of volunteers and ordinary people, the inclusion of the construction workers and the marvellous lighting of the cauldron designed by Thomas Heatherwick.

Michael Sadgrove has posted his reflections on the Opening Ceremony. He highlights the spirituality of the Opening Ceremony. For Edward Green the Opening ceremony is a sign of the shape of the church to come.

The photo is from powderphotography

Results, relegation and relationships

The football season is virtually over, relegation issues are settled and just a few teams have any further stake in the rest of the season as they fight for promotion through the play-offs. This wool gathering of a northern dean has some useful insights into the mind of the footballing world, particularly exploring the feelings of players who have failed to perform to expectation and feel the responsibility for relegation.

At the same time, our Year 6 children are sitting their tests and are expected to produce the results that, as they say, won’t let themselves down , their parents down, their teachers down, their schools down and everything else down. Are “results” an  obsession of our age? Is the fascination for measurement and standardisation something that has grown through the industrial revolution and our increasing capacity for measurement?

Results measure success and failure. Kenny Dalglish has discovered that not getting enough of them (wins) while managing Liverpool FC is fatal. Results are the stuff of competition, with the result that they set team against team and performer against performer. In battle there is only one winner and many losers, and, therefore, it is best to avoid that result by finding peace. Some are driven by results, but most of us, most of the time work without seeing results for our effort. How do we keep going?

Thanks to Meg Wheatley (Finding our Way: leadership for an Uncertain Time) I have these thoughts to challenge our results culture: the first is from Vaclav Havel, and the other is from a letter written by Thomas Merton to peace activist Jim Forest.

Hope is a dimension of the soul … an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons … It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.

Do not depend on the hope of results … You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness,the truth of the work itself … You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people … In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

Wheatley’s own comment is that hope and fear are inescapable partners. “Any time we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make it happen, then we also introduce fear – fear of failing, fear of loss.” She says that we can live beyond hope and fear, and that all we need is each other.

I couldn’t resist including the photo I found here. I have asked for permission to use it.

>nobility and celebrity


'The Judgement of Solomon', oil on canvas painting by Gaetano Gandolfi, mid 1770s
The Judgement of Solomon by Gaetano Gondolfi
(mid 1770’s) reminds us of the wisdom by which Solomon
achieved his noble status. The story is told in I Kings. It
reads like a plotline from Eastenders!

I didn’t know that “noble” literally means “known” – and so “nobility” is a community of persons who have become knowable because of the quality of their lives. Celebrity should similarly be the status of those whose lives are worth celebrating. Through the media (deserved?) we celebrate those who have achieved celebrity status through their ignobility – in spite of their lack of talent and human qualities.

Conversation with friends yesterday led us to reflect on Hitler who we saw as a good leader turned bad. A noble leader turned tyrannical monster. In that he is not alone. Michael Sadgrove, in considering the life of Solomon in Wisdom and Ministry, reflects on the processes and temptations for the noble of “grandiosity”. We know that nobility and grandiosity often go together. It is wisdom that keeps them apart.

Sadgrove writes: “The temptation is to stand as tall as we can so that we fill the institution we lead. Yet Jesus says that true greatness means becoming like a little child. This suggests that true ‘standing’ means not filling the space ourselves but making room for others.”

I shall reflect on how I have become known – how I may even be noble. I shall confess my ignoble sins of grandiosity. The ways of Hitler and Solomon lie open before us.